Ethical shopping guide to Trainers, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to Trainers, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

Are trainer brands still running away from responsibility in supply chains?

This report includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 33 trainer brands, both fashion and performance brands
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • In-depth look at supply chain policies
  • Vegan trainers
  • Spotlight on Nike

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Our ratings are live updated scores from our primary research database. They are based on primary and secondary research across 23 categories - 17 negative categories and 6 positive ones (Company Ethos and Product Sustainability). Find out more about our ethical ratings


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Are Trainer Brands Failing its Factory Workers? 


Growth in the sportswear market in the UK is being driven by a fashion trend for sporty clothing and footwear. For example, almost a quarter of consumers (23%) bought their footwear at sports shops/outdoor shops in the last year [1].


Our ratings:

We identified the most important issues in this market to be: 


Below we discuss each issue in more depth.


Image: Nike trainers in ethical shopping guide


Workers’ Rights


Since we last looked at this market in 2012 there has been little progress by the big brands in improving supply chain policies. Many of the brands on the table above still receive a worst rating for supply chain management and evidence from campaign groups suggest that workers’ rights continue to be violated. 

The reason why there has been little change can in some part be attributed to the scale of the problems within the apparel and shoe industries. Years of a race to the bottom has led to practices such as low wages becoming the norm. Many campaigners and businesses believe the future of change lies in a multi-stakeholder approach involving brands, factories, workers’ unions, campaign groups and governments. 

Some of the problems have been widely reported. For example in March 2016 the Clean Clothes Campaign – a garment workers’ rights organisation – reported that Mizuno continued to refuse help to 346 Indonesian workers who were unfairly dismissed after a strike in 2012.

The women were on strike demanding the right to freedom of association and back payment of the legal minimum wage. It was reported that for years the women had stitched 150 pairs of shoes per hour, and also suffered from verbal and physical violence.

After five days of strike, the factory management dismissed the workers. Some of the women, who had been working for years on Mizuno sportswear, lost their homes and families following their dismissal. Adidas (see company profile), another buyer at the factory at the time, also refused to support the workers.



Supply Chain Ranking 


The Ethical Consumer supply chain management rating (which is just one of the rating categories included in the ratings table above) is complex but key to understanding company behavior in this sector.

The rating is broken up into four areas:

  • Supply chain policy
  • Multi-stakeholder engagement
  • Auditing and reporting
  • Difficult issues.


Within each of these areas a company can receive a good, reasonable, rudimentary or poor rating depending on the quality of its polices and reporting.

However, there is also a small-company exception clause for those with a low turnover that can prove they are doing some work in this area. Ethical Consumer acknowledges that it is harder for smaller companies to compete with multinationals in terms of policy and reporting as it can be very resource intensive.

Below we list how each company did overall and then in each of the four individual areas.


Best rating overall:

Ethletic, Veja, Vivobarefoot and Inov-8 receive a best overall rating for supply chain management as they have a turnover of less than £8 million and have direct relationships with overseas factories with established sets of workers’ rights. 


Middle rating overall:

The brands who score a middle rating for supply chain management are adidas, Puma, Reebok, Vans, Brooks and Nike brands (Nike, Converse, Jordan).


The remaining brands all receive a worst rating for their supply chain management policy. 



The ratings broken down


i) Supply chain policy 

The first area – supply chain policy – simply asks if a company has a supplier code of conduct which covers the six core International Labour Organisations (ILO) conventions.

Companies who score ‘good’ under this area must have a policy that covers all six of these conventions without qualification. Only Ellesse, which is part of the Pentland Group, achieved this. Nike and Puma both received a ‘reasonable’ rating.

The following brands all score a ‘rudimentary’ rating for their supply chain policies as their code of conduct covers only the basic four ILO conventions (employment free from discrimination, no child labour, no forced labour and freedom of association): Fila, Mizuno, Under Armour, New Balance, adidas, Reebok and Brooks.

The remaining companies’ supply chain policies either don’t cover at least four ILO conventions, or worse, they don’t have a publicly available code of conduct which covers workers’ rights.


ii) Multi-Stakeholder engagement

The second part of Ethical Consumer’s ranking looks at stakeholder engagement which includes membership to a multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI).

An MSI is considered to be a formally organised initiative which is characterised by a democratic, multi-stakeholder governance structure. Members of an MSI usually include businesses, trade unions, civil societies and governments, who join together to help “tackle complex sustainability problems in global value chains.”[2] As SOMO – a Dutch non-governmental organisation – notes, MSIs often form as a response to major gaps in global governance.

Some of the companies in this guide are already collaborating through MSIs such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), whose work involves improving workers’ rights around the world. 

Pentland Group is a long standing member of the ETI, but it didn’t provide any details on what it was collaborating on. The Clean Clothes Campaign had also highlighted the Pentland Group’s failure to be working on any specific initiatives in its profile of the company in 2014. 

Another MSI which companies in this guide are members of is the Fair Labor Association. In 2014 the organisation worked on issues such as fair compensation and worker representation. Out of the brands on this table adidas, New Balance, Nike and Puma are all part of the FLA.


iii) Auditing and reporting

The third of Ethical Consumer’s rankings on supply chain management looks at the way companies conduct their audits and report the results. Companies are rated on their commitment to audit their whole supply chain, including lower tiers; a clear and transparent schedule of audits; disclosure of audit results; a remediation strategy; and disclosure on who pays for the costs of audits.

Out of the companies on this table only Brooks, adidas and Ellesse scored a reasonable rating in this category. This meant they had achieved at least three of the provisions in this category.

The following companies received a rudimentary rating for achieving two of the provisions: Nike, Puma, Mizuno and Salomon.

The remainder of the large companies failed to achieve any of the provisions and were considered to have a poor approach to auditing and reporting.


iiii) Difficult issues

The final section of the supply chain management rating looks at how companies deal with difficult issues within supply chains. This can cover anything from policies addressing purchasing issues, such as training buyers on labour standards within supply chains, to taking a systematic approach to addressing issues such as child labour, living wages and restrictions to freedom of association.

Most of the brands in this guide received a poor rating for addressing difficult issues. Only Brooks, Nike, Wolverine brands (Merrell, Saucony), ASICS and Skechers received a rudimentary rating for their approaches to difficult issues. This meant the companies were addressing at least one difficult issue in their supply chain. Wolverine for example stated that it was committed to long-term partnerships with its suppliers.


Find out more about how we rate companies here. 



Toxic Chemicals in Trainers

We have rated all the compaines in table above on toxic chemicals policies because of the number of hazardous chemicals such as PFCs, dyes and adhesives, used in footwear industries. 

In this guide only Ethletic and Vivobarefoot receive a best rating for their toxic chemicals policies. 

Greenpeace launched a 'Detox Campaign' and accused many popular sports brands of failing to ditch the use of harmful chemicals. 

Greenpeace called out Nike for refusing to 'be held accountable for its toxic problem' as it 'continues to champion a commitment lacking credibility, ambition and individual action'. 

Subscribers can click on a company in the table to see how each company scores. Become a subscriber here. 




What is Wrong with Leather?


Many trainers are made out of leather. The production of leather is damaging for the environment, animals and people. Trainer brands such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas get marked down for use of leather in its products. 

Find out more about leather and ethical alternatives in our shoe guide. 



Can I buy Vegan Trainers? 

If you want to avoid leather it is best to check for the leathermark (see the logos below). 


Material symbols in ethical shopping guide


However, animal-based glue can also make a trainer not suitable for vegans. To make sure you are avoiding animal glue, our list below ensures which trainers are vegan certified. 

100% Vegan ranges:

Ethletic Shoes, Inov-8


Some shoes suitable for vegans:

Vivobarefoot, Veja and Merrell all have vegan sections on their websites.

ASICS, Saucony, Mizuno and Brooks are also listed by PETA as having vegan options. A search of their websites for vegan shoes brings up a list of models, but no further information is provided.

Under Armour states “The vast majority of our shoes are fully synthetic with no use of animal products.”


Not suitable for vegans

When contacted the following brands could not claim their shoes were suitable for vegans due to the fact they did not know what type of glue had been used: Hi-Tec, New Balance and Amer Sports.

The remaining brands are not thought to have trainers suitable for vegans.




Company behind the brand

Nike’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) reputation in the media regarding workers’ rights has little improved, since we last rated them in 2012. For example, in April 2015 a report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR) accused Nike of lacking “guts and morale” when it came to sourcing in Vietnam.

The report by the IGLHR pointed out that, in March 2015, Nike’s general counsel Hilary Krane emailed all staff asking them to lobby for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which she said would “reduce duties on footwear and apparel among TPP countries, including Nike products manufactured in Vietnam for sale in the US”. She added: “For Nike, rolling back these duties will allow us to grow in new markets, reinvest in innovation, and offset costs of doing business.”[3]

For more information on Nike - see our detailed company profile. 


 Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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1. Mintel, Footwear Retailing, July 2016. 





What about clothing? See our ethical shopping guide to sportswear. 


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